Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Crusader Rowing Upstream in Cambodia

By SETH MYDANS (The New York Times)

Incumbent Mu Sochua, 55, is already campaigning for the 2013 parliamentary election

MAK PRAING, CAMBODIA — “I’m going to get my votes!” cried Mu Sochua as she stepped into a slender rowboat, holding one side for balance. “One by one.”

She was crossing a small river here in southern Cambodia on a recent stop in her never-ending campaign for re-election to Parliament, introducing herself to rural constituents who may never have seen her face.

The most prominent woman in Cambodia’s struggling political opposition, Mu Sochua, 55, is campaigning now, three years before the next election, because she is almost entirely excluded from government-controlled newspapers and television.

“Only 35 percent of voters know who won the last election,” she said.

She has no time to lose.

Ms. Mu Sochua is a member of a new generation of women who are working their way into the political systems of countries across Asia and elsewhere, from local councils to national assemblies and cabinet positions.

A former minister of women’s affairs, she did as much as anyone to put women’s issues on the agenda of Cambodia as it emerged in the 1990s from decades of war and mass killings. But she lost her public platform in 2004 when she broke with the government, and she is now finding it as difficult to promote her ideas as it is to simply gain attention as a candidate.

She says her signal achievement, leading the way for women into thousands of government positions, has done little to advance women’s issues in a stubbornly male-dominated society.

And like dissidents and opposition figures in many countries, she has found herself with a new burden: battling for her own rights. As she has risen in prominence, the political stands she has taken have become a greater liability to her than gender bias has been.

Most recently, she has been caught in a bizarre tit-for-tat exchange of defamation suits with the country’s domineering prime minister, Hun Sen, in which, to no one’s surprise, she was the loser.

It started last April here in Kampot Province, her constituency, when Mr. Hun Sen referred to her with the phrase “cheung klang,” or “strong legs,” an insulting term for a woman in Cambodia.

She sued him for defamation; he stripped her of her parliamentary immunity and sued her back. Her suit was dismissed in the politically docile courts. In August she was convicted of defaming the prime minister and fined 16.5 million riel, or about $4,000, which she has refused to pay.

“Now I live with the uncertainty about whether I’m going to go to jail,” she said in a recent interview. “I’m not going to pay the fine. Paying the fine is saying to all Cambodian women, ‘What are you worth? A man can call you anything he wants, and there is nothing you can do.”’

This gesture is one of the few ways she has left to champion the rights of women, the central passion of her public life.

As an outspoken opponent of the prime minister, she has found, her participation taints any group, action or demonstration with the stigma of political opposition.

“My voice kills the movement,” she said. “It’s my failure. Now I am the face of the opposition, a woman’s face in opposition. Women say, ‘We believe in you. We admire you. But we can’t be with you because the movement will die.”’

During her six years as minister of women’s affairs, Ms. Mu Sochua campaigned against child abuse, marital rape, violence against women, human trafficking and the exploitation of female workers. She helped draft the country’s law against domestic violence.

In part because of her work, she said, “People are aware about gender. It’s a new Cambodian word: ‘gen-de.’ People are aware that women have rights.”

But where political empowerment of women is concerned, she said, quantity has not produced quality, and prominence has not translated into progress for a women’s agenda.

Over the years, Ms. Mu Sochua has worked with nongovernmental groups to field thousands of candidates in local elections. Largely because of her activism, there are now 27 women in a National Assembly of 123 seats.

But 21 of these are members of the governing Cambodian People’s Party — window dressing, she said — and have little impact, following the party line like their male counterparts.

“They don’t speak out,” she said. “It’s hard to talk about this — I don’t want to antagonize women — but if women suffer from our silence, we are responsible. What are we doing to make their lives better?

“This is where women can hurt women. They are in politics, but they are part of the problem by keeping silent.”

Cambodia is still a traditional society in which women are expected to behave demurely and subordinate themselves to men. Schooled in the United States, Ms. Mu Sochua said she had to keep an eye on her own Westernized ideas and behavior, to be “careful I don’t push things too far.”

The daughter of a well-to-do merchant in Phnom Penh, she was sent to study in the West at the age of 12, ending up at the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned a master’s degree in social work and thrived on the culture of outspokenness of the 1970s.

“When I hit San Francisco, I knew that that was my city,” she said. “I began to shine. I let my hair grow. I looked like a hippie.”

She met her future husband, an American, when both were assisting Cambodian refugees on the Thai border after the fall of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. Since 1989 they have lived together in Cambodia, where he works for the United Nations. They have three grown children living in the United States and Britain.

“I have to be very, very careful about what I bring from the West, to promote women’s rights within the context of a society that is led by men,” she said. “In the Cambodian context, it’s women’s lib. It’s feminism. It’s challenging the culture, challenging the men.”

She has this in mind as she walks through the villages of her constituency, a woman with power but a woman nonetheless. “I walk into a cafe, and I have to think twice, how to be polite to the men,” she said. “I have to ask if I can enter. This is their turf. I am a woman, and I should be sitting in one of these little shops and selling things.”

And so she paused the other day at the stoop of a little cafe here in this riverside village, an open-fronted noodle shop where men sat in the midday heat on red plastic chairs.

She had succeeded in halting a sand-dredging project that was eroding riverbanks here, and she wanted the men to know that she had been working on their behalf.

“I came here to inform you that you got a result from the government,” she told the men, showing them a legal document. “I want to inform you that you have a voice. If you see something wrong, you can stand up and speak about it.”

Asked afterward what it was like to have a woman fighting his battles, Mol Sa, 37, a fisherman, said, “She speaks up for us, so I don’t think she’s any different from a man. Maybe a different lady couldn’t do it, but she can do it because she is strong and not afraid.”

Fear was a theme as Ms. Mu Sochua moved through the countryside here. At another village, where cracks were appearing in the sandy embankment, a widow named Pal Nas, 78, said the big dredging boats had scared her.

“I’m afraid that if I speak out, they will come after me,” she said. “In the Khmer Rouge time, they killed all the men. When night comes, I don’t have a man to protect me. It’s more difficult if you are a woman alone.”

Mr. Hun Sen’s party holds power throughout most of rural Cambodia, and Ms. Mu Sochua said that party agents kept an eye on her as she campaigned.

Before she boarded the little boat to cross the river, a man on a motorcycle took photographs of her and her companions with a cellphone, then drove away.

Across the river, a farmer greeted her warmly, climbing a tree to pick ripe guavas for her.

“I voted for you,” he said as he handed her the fruit. “But don’t tell anyone.”

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